Cyrus R. Vance

Lyndon Johnson Administration

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January 28, 1964–June 30, 1967

Cyrus R. Vance became the 11th Deputy Secretary of Defense on 28 January 1964. He spent 1,249 days as Deputy, the longest tenured deputy to that date. 

Vance was born on March 27, 1917, in Clarksburg, West Virginia. He attended Yale and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. In 1942 he received an L.L.B. with honors from Yale Law School. He enlisted in the Navy as a naval gunnery officer and spent World War II aboard the USS Hale. He was discharged from the Navy in 1946 as a Lieutenant Senior Grade. In 1947, he went to work for the Mead Corporation as an assistant to the president, but after he passed the New York bar in 1947, he joined the law firm Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett as a civil litigator. Ten years later, he left private practice to become Associate General Counsel to the Senate Armed Services Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee under Chairman Lyndon Johnson (D-TX). In 1958, Vance became the Consulting Counsel to the Senate Committee on Space and Aeronautics and was instrumental in drafting the 1958 National Space Act, which created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In 1961, he became the Defense Department’s General Counsel and a year later he was promoted to Secretary of the Army. When Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric announced he was stepping down, President Kennedy initially considered nominating Vance as Gilpatric’s replacement. Since Vance had only recently assumed the post of Secretary of the Army, the President demurred on naming him Deputy and prepared to name Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Paul Nitze as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s new Deputy. After Kennedy’s assassination, however, and based on McNamara’s recommendation, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Vance as Deputy Secretary of Defense. The Senate confirmed him on January 28.

Vance quickly earned the reputation as a mediator and emissary, a role that outlasted his tenure as Deputy. The moniker spoke to his skill as a negotiator. Before he even took office, violence erupted in Panama, with Panamanians, long resentful of American control of the Panama Canal, rioting along the Canal Zone border. President Roberto Chiari severed diplomatic relations with the United States and called for “a complete revision of all treaties with the United States.” President Johnson dispatched Vance and Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Mann to Panama to assess the situation. President Johnson agreed to reexamine the Canal treaty. Negotiations commenced, but continued political unrest in Panama stymied efforts. By the time the President left office, a revised Canal treaty remained undone.

Vance proved such an adept special emissary that Johnson called on him again during the Dominican crisis in mid-1965. In September 1963 Donald Reid Cabral came to power after the overthrow of President Juan Bosch. By 1965, however, Reid held tenuous control over the Dominican Republic and Bosch and his military supporters tried to remove him. Reid mounted a resistance to the attempted coup, sparking chaos in the country. On April 25, rebels finally deposed Reid and installed Jose Molina Ureña as president. The change in leadership did not subdue the unrest. Deputy Secretary Vance, acting in McNamara’s stead, approved a request from the State Department to send ships to the Caribbean in anticipation of evacuating Americans from the Dominican Republic. President Johnson feared a Communist takeover in an unstable nation in the Western Hemisphere and ordered the Marines to land in the capital of Santo Domingo. With two independent Dominican governments functioning separately, restoration of order was almost impossible. On May 14, Johnson dispatched Vance, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Thomas Mann to Santo Domingo to act as his envoys and help establish a viable coalition government. 

The emissaries met with former President Juan Bosch to discuss plans for a new government. Vance also met with Dominican military leaders in the hopes of reaching a settlement. Finally, the warring factions agreed to a cease-fire on May 21. The Organization of American States (OAS) sent troops to maintain peace, permitting the United States to withdraw some forces. Vance remained in the Dominican Republic until U.S. Representative to the OAS Ellsworth Bunker arrived to begin working with other OAS officials and the two disparate rulers to form a provisional government. The temporary government eventually elected Joaquin Balaguer president in June 1966. The last American troops were withdrawn in late September 1966. 

In mid-July 1965, Vance testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to explain the United States military’s role in maintaining order throughout the Dominican crisis. The Deputy confirmed that American forces were initially sent to evacuate U.S. nationals from the island and to establish an International Safety Zone to ensure that troops and supplies moved unimpeded through a seven-mile area. As the crisis intensified, more American military personnel became essential to prevent the fractured country from falling prey to Communist influence. He assured the committee that American forces “performed magnificently” during their mission.

Vance appeared before congressional committees on numerous occasions during his tenure. During budget negotiations in August 1965, he served as McNamara’s “point man,” interfacing with Congress on fiscal issues. He testified in February 1967 against deploying an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system, a mechanism designed to destroy incoming enemy missiles. He and McNamara believed that the Soviet Union possessed the same level of deterrence as the United States. In their opinion, an American ABM system would only lead to a heightened arms race, as Moscow sought to develop weapons capable of countering an American ABM. Vance became further involved in arms control issues as secretary of state in the Carter administration.

The U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated during Vance’s tenure as Deputy. In July 1965, after General Westmoreland had requested additional ground forces and airpower, Secretary McNamara tasked Vance with overseeing Defense Department committees drafting communiques, white papers, and legislation related to Vietnam. Vance also composed a report on the proposed troop increase, detailing the deployment numbers and monetary considerations. He initially supported the President’s policy, and in April 1965 he traveled to Vietnam, reporting back that the “military effort [was] going quite well.” By spring 1967, however, he perceived the war as an increasing quagmire for the United States. Both he and Secretary McNamara privately opposed bombing North Vietnam, but publicly they continued to carry out the President’s policies.

In June 1967, a debilitating back problem caused Vance to resign his post. He returned to his law firm, but his close ties to President Johnson and his skills as a mediator pressed him into service once more. In July, race riots erupted in Detroit, so President Johnson dispatched Vance as Secretary McNamara’s special assistant to assess the civil unrest. Vance spent two weeks in Detroit. President Johnson next sent him on a diplomatic mission to mediate a dispute between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus. Vance brokered a deal in which the Greek army retreated from Cyprus. In early 1968, he flew to South Korea to meet with President Park Chung Hee after North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, an American Navy surveillance ship, and attacked the Blue House, the president’s residence. He convinced Park to abstain from retaliating against North Korea. In March, the President named Vance as the deputy chief negotiator to Paris to parley a cease-fire with North Vietnam, and in April, Vance returned to Washington as the commander of Task Force Washington to assist in trying to restore order to the city after riots erupted following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

When the Johnson administration ended, Vance returned to his law firm. He served as a member of the Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption in New York City from 1970 to 1972, as chairman of the United Nations Association–USA Policy Studies Committee, and as New York State Bar President from 1974 to 1976. He returned to government service as Secretary of State from January 1977 to April 1980 during the Carter administration. In 1983, Vance published a memoir of his time at State, Hard Choices: Critical Years in American Foreign Policy. He died of pneumonia in January 2002 at the age of 84.